TORONTO, Canada, Sept 19, (Agencies): The bewitching musical “La La Land” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone won the coveted Toronto Film Festival audience prize on Sunday, giving it a leg up on the competition as the Oscars race takes shape.
The joyful, quirky film by Damien Chazelle about a struggling jazz pianist and his actress girlfriend in Los Angeles pays tribute to the Golden Age of American musicals, honoring classics from “Top Hat” to “Singing in the Rain” to “Grease.”
It also reunites Gosling and Stone, who starred together in the 2011 romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love” — but with oodles of singing this time.
Stone plays Mia, a wide-eyed romantic who goes from audition to audition — often failed — in her quest to make it big, while Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist with a mission to save the medium, but who struggles to pay his bills.
The pair meet — in one of LA’s famous traffic jams and then at a bawdy celebrity party — before wooing each other in tap- and ballroom-dancing sequences reminiscent of Hollywood icons Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“Now more than ever we need hope and romance on the big screen,” said Chazelle, 31, a former jazz musician whose film “Whiplash” (2014) took home three Oscars out of five nominations.
“There’s something about musicals. They are movies as a dreamland, expressing a world in which you break into song, in which you can violate the rules of reality,” said Chazelle, the film’s writer and director.
“La La Land” opened the Venice film festival in late August, earning accolades from critics and moviegoers, before screening in Toronto — a bellwether for Oscar-conscious studios and distributors.
The picture bursts with enthusiasm and happiness from the opening scene: a big dance number on a freeway with men and women dressed in sun-kissed yellows, rich reds and blues dancing on their cars.
Chazelle said he had brought the love story into the modern day by setting it in Los Angeles, whose nickname La-La Land also refers to a euphoric, dreamlike mental state.
Chazelle, who has lived in the sprawling southern California metropolis for almost a decade, said it was “a city of loneliness when you first live there, not a city that offers itself up.”
In past years, films such as “12 Years a Slave,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” went on from winning the Toronto film festival people’s choice award for best picture to take the top honor at the Oscars.
Earlier this year, Toronto audience favorite “Spotlight” beat all predictions to win best picture at the Academy Awards.
Runners-up for the Toronto prize this year were first-time filmmaker Garth Davis’s “Lion,” and Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe” starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
“Queen of Katwe” chronicles the true story of a Ugandan girl who pursues her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
“Lion,” another powerful real-life tale, follows a young Indian boy on a 25-year journey to find his family after being separated and lost nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from home.
Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s autobiography “A Long Way Home,” the film stars Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara.
Toronto jury prizes also went to Pablo Larrain for “Jackie,” Maysaloun Hamoud’s “In Between,” Mbithi Masya for “Kati Kati,” and Feng Xiaogang for “I Am Not Madame Bovary.”
“Getting to even make this movie was a dream come true,” Chazelle, who was not present, said in statement read at the ceremony. “To see it connect with Toronto audiences in this way is deeply gratifying.”
Now in its 41st year, the Toronto festival ranks with Cannes and Sundance as one of the world’s top movie gatherings. The sprawling festival, with more than 400 films screened, often serves as a launch pad for films and performances for the awards season that culminates with the Oscars.
Other films honored at the ceremony include Toronto Platform Prize winner “Jackie,” directed by Pablo Larrain, a portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of the assassination of her husband, US President John F. Kennedy.
The Platform Prize is determined by a jury that this year comprised directors Brian De Palma and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and actor Zhang Ziyi.
Zhang said “Jackie” explored the myth of the “American Camelot” and lauded its “preeminent” performance by leading woman Natalie Portman.
“Jackie” came to Toronto without a US distributor, but the rights were soon acquired by Fox Searchlight, a studio that has proven to be a savvy awards season campaigner.
The People’s Choice Award for top documentary went to “I Am Not Your Negro” by Raoul Peck, which examines what it means to be black in the United States.
The People’s Choice Award for top film in the Midnight Madness program, which often showcases horror and offbeat films, went to “Free Fire” by Ben Wheatley, which sees two groups of criminals in an arms deal gone wrong.
* People’s Choice Award: “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle
* People’s Choice Award For Documentary: “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck
* People’s Choice Award For Midnight Madness: “Free Fire,” Ben Wheatley
* Platform Prize: “Jackie,” Pablo Larrian
* Platform Prize, Special Mention: “Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait,” Khyentse Norbu
* Best Canadian Feature Film: “Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves,” Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie
* Best Canadian First Feature Film: “Old Stone,” Johnny Ma
* Prizes of the International Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) for Special Presentations Section: “I Am Not Madame Bovary,” Feng Xiaogang
* Prizes of the International Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) for Discovery Section: “Kati Kati,” Mbithi Masya
* Dropbox Discovery Programme Filmmakers Award: “Jeffrey,” Yanillys Perez
* NETPAC Award For World or International Asian Film Premiere: “In Between,” Maysaloun Hamoud
* Best Short Film: “Imago,” Ribay Gutierrez
* Best Canadian Short Film: “Mutants,” Alexandre Dostie